Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas is about Hope

Beyond the glittering lights on Orchard Road and the sound of carols at shopping malls, I reflect on the meaning of Christmas. Clearly, it means different things to different people. For millions of Christians from all traditions, it is a celebration of God’s kindness and love in the birth of Jesus Christ whom they acknowledge as Lord and Saviour. For others, it is the beginning of the year-end holidays – a time to give and receive, a time to party and have a good time.

For me this Christmas, the word HOPE keeps popping up. HOPE, aptly described as the little voice you hear whisper “maybe” when it seems the entire world is shouting “no”. It is a powerfully positive emotion and in many instances it is the kindest gift of all.

I found this in Unbroken, a powerful World War II story of Olympian Louie Zamperini who survived some 40 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean without food and water, and more than two years as a POW. Clearly, it was HOPE that kept him and his friends alive in the most brutal conditions.

Last Sunday night, I was a guest at a mini-concert organized by Diamonds on the Street. Crystal Goh and her friends co-created a number of songs with some of the girls at risk from a Girls Home. They shared about their journey of transformation driven by HOPE. Their family and friends who support them give them the HOPE to dream of a better life resulting in a strong drive to reach their potential. It was so inspiring hear about their new-found ambition – one wanted to be a businesswoman, another, a lawyer and so on. And you can see that they now have the HOPE to be because they received the gift of HOPE from people who care.

Last night a number of my colleagues celebrated Christmas with a former colleague and her family. She was struck down with aneurism 15 months ago and has since been in a comatose state. Her husband shared about the HOPE he has in God to answer their prayers for his wife – HOPE is keeping them going. I suddenly remembered the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope”

We held hands and formed a circle to exercise faith, each in our own way, to give him and his family the gift of HOPE. Together with the family, we do believe and HOPE that our prayers will be answered and she will get out of her comatose state soon.

This Christmas, there are many individuals and organizations sharing the gift of HOPE. Prison Fellowship Singapore, for example, extended HOPE to more than 1000 children of folks who are incarcerated with Christmas hampers of gifts sponsored by individuals and organizations, and personally delivered to their homes. The Boys Brigade “Share-A-Gift” reached out to more than 40,000 beneficiaries this year. Our partner Ripples have created a new series of slippers and are giving away a pair to the needy for every pair sold. And the list goes on.

Thomas Addison reminds us that there are three grand essentials to happiness in this life. And they are something to do, something to love and something to hope for. I often think that happiness is not something we pursue for pursuing it is like chasing after the wind – we will never catch it. Rather it is more like doing something for others, loving someone, giving the gift of hope. In so doing, we will feel the breeze of happiness chasing us from behind.

I can’t possibly express the gift of HOPE more beautifully than Emily Dickenson, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without words at never stops at all.”

Have a Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

Dr. William Wan
Christmas Eve, 2013.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An American Perspective on Kindness in Asia

In August this year, at the Opera Estate Street Party, I met Darrin Couch and his wife, Dominica Kim. He hails from Tallahassee, Florida in the United States and has worked in many countries in the Asia Pacific region and lived in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea over the last 20 years. He is an Account Executive looking after Global Accounts for Hewlett-Packard and is married. They have resided in Singapore since July 2011 and they love good food in Singapore, walking around the East Coast Park and learning about local customs. Here is his perspective on kindness in Asia.

I am an American who spent the last 20 years living and working in many countries in Asia. I have enjoyed my time living in Asia and met and married my wife, Dominica, while I was working in Seoul, Korea. We have lived in Singapore for the last 2 years and it feels like home. Recently, I met Dr. Wan at a Big Makan event and he asked me to share my perspective on kindness. And I am very glad to do that.

There are some cultural differences, but overall I believe the expression of kindness to be universal. Everyone everywhere appreciates kindness and this is especially true when they are in need.

My wife and I
In Singapore, my wife and I spend a lot of time taking advantage of the many walking paths and sometimes take excursions to visit local neighbourhoods. Our introduction to the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) came when we were walking around the East Coast and came across a banner advertising a street party. We noted the date and made plans to stop by. The road was blocked off and we were a bit concerned that maybe it was a meant only for the residents of this particular community. There was a gentleman at the road entrance and we asked if we could join. We were told it was open to the public and we proceeded to join the large gathering under the tent. We met various people including two gentlemen from the SKM. We chatted about the event and I found out more about SKM. Once I understood more, I realized that the organization wasn’t just about being kind to each other, but more about being part of a community that cared about each other and the environment that we live in.
Big Makan 2013 at Opera Estate
I grew up in a middle class neighbourhood in the United States. We knew most of our neighbours and many times when we celebrated events, such as Independence Day on July 4th, our neighbours would be invited. I remember when I was around 7 years old, one of our neighbours whom we didn’t know that well had a July 4th party. We weren’t invited, but I stopped by with some other neighbourhood kids and we were warmly welcomed to hamburgers, hotdogs and potato chips. I don’t even think they knew our names, maybe they had seen us in the neighbourhood. As we ate their food, these neighbours stopped by and gave us drinks as well. The only words I think we spoke to them was “Yes, please”, and we were all comfortable with that arrangement. I took this all for granted as a child, but even when we moved to other cities my family always seemed to develop good relationships with our neighbours and we always felt like part of the community.

United States Suburbia
When I moved to Asia, I noticed that my relationship with my neighbours changed. I believe that it was more related to the change from living in houses on a street with a yard in the United States versus living in an apartment in Asia. In Asia, I lived in much larger cities so we mainly stayed in apartments/flats and everyone always seems to be busy. Interestingly enough, though some of my neighbours were westerners, the connection that I had grown up with was still missing. It seems odd, but I feel that close proximity to our neighbours actually may contribute to us being less connected and friendly. Maybe when we are physically close we seek the sanctuary of solitude to enjoy some alone time. When we are more physically separated we may miss and seek out a connection with others.

The stress of a larger city may also contribute to the perceived lack of friendliness. My hometown in the United States has a rush hour that lasts about 45 minutes. In every city that I have lived in Asia rush hour can last more than 3 hours and if it rains then you have to add on at least another hour. After dealing with a stressful commute, it usually takes me a bit of time to decompress. I usually even ask my wife to give me some space when I first come home as a chance to de-stress from the day’s work and commute.

Since we have moved to Singapore, we have reached out to our neighbours and I must say that they have been great. We have shared meals together, invited each other to celebrations, and picked up gifts for each other on our travels. I have also struck up conversations in the elevators with some of the other neighbours. I find that most have been receptive and kind during our short journey. This makes me feel that most would be more receptive to becoming more neighbourly and be part of a larger community.

Overall, I am optimistic that even in large cities where populations are physically close that we can be kind and neighbourly to one another and develop a close knit community. However, I think we still need a catalyst to make things happen. I have decided to associate myself with the SKM as I believe that it acts as a catalyst. We may need to start small like greeting each other in elevators or as we stand in line (an all too common occurrence in Singapore). The opportunities for kindness are always there. It is up to us to take ownership of our social environment and just step up to make the effort.

I think that is what their tagline means when it says “A Nation of Kindness Starts with One”. I know it starts with me taking the initiative.